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Ilhan Omar and the Jeremy Corbyn Playbook

The attacks on Ilhan Omar for antisemitism are reminiscent of those levied against Jeremy Corbyn. The charges aren't just nonsense — they're being used to stifle criticism of Israel.

Ilhan Omar arrives at an election night results party on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. Stephen Maturen / Getty

It’s a given now that if New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez so much as breathes, the response will be so histrionic as to border on the incomprehensible. Predictably, upon tweeting that she had spoken with UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the telephone, a deluge of outrage descended on her for daring to converse with her closest ideological counterpart in the United Kingdom. That Ocasio-Cortez had engaged in conversation with the leader of the second-biggest political party in the UK was reprehensible, the line went, because Corbyn had faced accusations of antisemitism.

The furor around the Corbyn-AOC chat bears resemblances to the furor around Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about AIPAC: a throwaway comment by the young legislator was cast as virulently antisemitic, and discussion of the issue has been all but shut down.

The discussion around antisemitism in the Labour Party has been complex and fraught, and remains ongoing. Jennie Formby, the party general secretary, released a report on the current state of investigations around allegations of antisemitism this month. Several issues were clear: as no one denies, antisemitism is a legitimate issue in the Labour Party, as it is in the UK as a whole, and the party has now committed to dealing with allegations of antisemitism leveled against individual members.

At the same time, many of those reported for abuse are neither members of the Labour Party nor anything more than online troll accounts. While a real problem exists, many people desperate for attention have leapt onto an online bandwagon and brazenly regurgitated antisemitic bile in the hope of provoking a reaction. Often this works, and the comments are perversely attributed to the Labour leadership, usually by prominent accounts with no links to Labour, intent on disparaging the party.

Needless to say, there exists no parallel for the Conservative Party. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has repeatedly called for investigations into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and been roundly ignored. On mainstream political programs in the UK, I have been on panels in which other commentators have been allowed to say that Islamophobia is justified, unchallenged by the hosts. Muslims have endlessly begged the Tory party leadership to investigate the depth of Islamophobia in the party with absolutely no response.

Meanwhile, Labour has been criticized for launching investigations into reported antisemitism. No one in Labour argues the issue is new; it’s only now that it is being taken seriously. That is true of all such issues within the party: many people have told me they reported issues around sexual harassment, bullying, and racism to the previous Labour leadership and were told investigating such matters would jeopardize party unity. The current leadership has not swept such matters under the rug, and are criticized far more for not silencing alleged victims.

If we are to root out antisemitism properly, several lines need to be drawn: between careless remarks that might be misread; remarks that carry antisemitic undertones without full knowledge; and straightforwardly antisemitic remarks. I have regularly seen people condemned for antisemitic behavior online and am confident that many left spaces are able to self-police. But while building political movements, we also have to accept that many people have become engaged politically via social media, and that can sometimes mean regurgitating phrases with dubious meanings. Educating people rather than condemning and excluding them yields far more value for everyone involved. That is true in general, but also specifically in stopping those with a predisposition to conspiracy from moving in that direction.

Ironically, the response to Omar’s comments has reinforced the perception that criticism of Israel can be quashed instantly. Any mention of AIPAC can be dismissed as antisemitic, despite the fact that AIPAC, as a lobby, exists to influence the political system, including through the use of money. Some will back down, but Omar did nothing wrong. Likewise, Ocasio-Cortez is quite right to seek links with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.